How To Win An Argument About: the waka-jumping bill

9:24 pm on 28 September 2018

Opinion - In the 'How to win an argument about' series, writers look at both sides of a story you might be debating at the office, or at the pub tonight. This week, Bryce Edwards looks at the waka-jumping bill.

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Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

The waka jumping bill - otherwise known as the Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill for non-nautical types - has MPs getting very tetchy recently.

While the arguments for and against are always pitched at the loftiest levels - the defence of democracy, the integrity of the electoral system, free speech and the basic right to dissent - it's also that this provides a new means by which MPs can be sacked by their party leader.

After all, most workers are going to get a bit nervy when the boss comes up with a new way to send you down the road.

On the plus side….

* The waka jumping bill provides a new way to sack MPs. If a week is a long time in politics then three years is an eternity. Bad enough we have to put up with the backsliding on policy from whole governments after an election, but having an unknown list MP change parties when they wouldn't have a snowball's of winning an electorate seat under their own steam is galling.

We have accepted list MPs as necessary for proportionality. But we shouldn't have to pay and listen to them in Parliament after they have completely abandoned the one thing they were elected to do.

* Having dead wood in Parliament is one thing (and there is a decent bonfire there already without waka jumpers). Giving dead wood the power to change the elected government (or prop up one that doesn't have a majority - "Remember the Alamein!") is a bit more serious. Bags not having to tell The Today Show panel that baby Neve won't be on next time with mum because some list MPs have replaced her with Simon Bridges doing a drum solo.

* Waka jumping may create a dangerous precedent in other arenas. Consider this scenario: it's half time in the World Cup final against France. Suddenly, Beauden Barrett emerges from the tunnel in a blue jersey, slots in at first five and proceeds to slice through the All Blacks defence and dots down for the winning try. His agent announces on Twitter that he has signed with Toulouse and France on principle because the All Black coach has changed who he has to share a room with. The agent admits there may be some compensation involved. The lesson is that: "You stick with the team".

On the other hand…

* There is no independent judgement if a waka jumper is justified or not. Critics have said the bill gives too much power to parties, and actually it is the party leader who now has the biggest role. We really should not encourage party leaders to conflate their personal interests with that of their party. The Australian Liberal and Labour parties are good examples of what happens when leaders can't tell the difference. It ain't pretty and doesn't have a lot to do with democracy.

* Even in New Zealand, party leaders already now have the type of power that Robert Muldoon would have only dreamed of. Party officials don't control anything. It's hard to know what the formal policy-making committees of political parties do these days - but their actual role seems to be uploading press releases to the party website. And remembering to remove the previous release to make the backflip less obvious.

* The most repeated criticism is the "chilling effect" the bill may have on political dissent. Knowing the boss only has to get a majority of workmates to vote with them to have anyone sacked would certainly put a chill down many spines. Yes, you have got your best mates who laugh at your jokes about the leadership and declare they will stick with you through thick and thin (right?), but there are also all the flunkies and suck-ups, the spineless and the dim-witted who will do what they are told by the boss. So, the new law will definitely be enough to encourage an MP to cut a sentence short in an interview or to delete the final line in that angrily typed media release or speech.

There is an argument that new parties in Parliament have only ever been elected after MPs have left existing parties to start them, and that the waka jumping bill will now prevent that. However, depending on which new party you are talking about, that could be an argument for or against the bill.

*Dr Bryce Edwards is a Victoria University of Wellington academic whose main research areas are in political parties, elections and Parliament.

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